Best in Show: Sigmar Polke’s Chemical Cosmos

Polke transformed what was usually an exacting and laborious printing process into a serendipitous hurly-burly of dark splatters and luminous runnels.


Whether his lens was focused on his own abstract drawings or capturing skeletons moldering away in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, German painter Sigmar Polke (1941–2010) reveled in ignoring standard photographic technique. Instead, he emphasized a crucial element that was purposely submerged in most serious photography (and is wholly absent from our digital epoch): the visceral interaction of chemicals on paper. Polke’s stained black-and-white prints, with their rudely cut edges and scratched surfaces, deliver painterly jolts.

In a sublime 1988 print of vaguely organic shapes, one can sense how old-school photographic mediums actually work—minute silver particles suspended in a gelatin emulsion become tarnished from a quick burst of light. Polke transformed what was usually an exacting and laborious printing process into a serendipitous hurly-burly of dark splatters and luminous runnels. The artist’s shoes, visible at the bottom of the picture, reveal that he simply photographed some of his own gouache drawings spread out on the floor, then fooled around with the developer and fixing bath to add a smoggy scrim that echoes the painted forms.

This sense of play was already evident in his 1976 photos of those withered Capuchin corpses, one shot capturing a pair of empty eye sockets contemplating the cigarette dangling from a companion’s centuries-dead mouth. Even amid decay, Polke divined teeming spirits everywhere, often placing himself at the center of his own idiosyncratic cosmos. In an overexposed self-portrait, he holds a camera out from his body to photograph his own face. His torso is nearly whited-out, as if being transported to a more rarefied realm—you might find yourself wondering if he managed to snap the shutter before his rapture was complete.

In a roughly two-foot-square photo depicting a pair of 45 rpm singles and one of his cartoon-like figure drawings pinned to a wall, Polke’s fingerprint, obviously smudged onto the negative, looms as large as the records and the quickly scrawled heads. Such emphatic traces of the artist’s presence imbue these often-startling images with a sloppy, yet magical, physicality.

Sigmar Polke: ‘Photoworks 1964–2000’
Leo Koenig Inc.
545 West 23rd Street
Through September 3


‘Perfectly Damaged’

Some great artwork has come from purposeful destruction—think of Gordon Matta-Clark back in the ’70s sawing massive ellipses out of the floors, roofs, and walls of abandoned buildings. Valerie Hegarty channels Clark with her faux-distressed Interior Wall With Grand Canyon, a life-size foamcore-and-cardboard concoction depicting a battered plaster and lathe wall adorned with a ripped landscape. This artifice of destruction is continued in Quinn Taylor and Michael DeLucia’s Radon. After Taylor painted skewed geometries on a sheet of plywood, DeLucia used a router to carve rigid striations into the surface; due to the cheap wood and thick layers of house paint, the elegant patterns of the cuts are undermined by their furred and clotted edges. A score of bullet-size holes puncture Molly Zuckerman-Hartung’s small 2008­–10 painting of a surrealist biomorph undergirded by a colorful cubist framework. Silver paint drips like blood, and the scraped surface is as rough as a week-old scab, conjuring a haunting, corporeal struggle, a notion that occurred to me well before I read the title: Damaged Nightwood (Have I not shut my eyes with the added shutter of the night and put my hand out?). Derek Eller, 615 W 27th, 212-206-6411, Through August 17

‘Rude and Reckless: Punk/Post-Punk Graphics, 1976–82’

Running the gamut from crudely xeroxed show flyers to album-jacket enlargements, this jam-packed exhibit emphasizes that punk-era graphics were every bit as aggressive as the music they promoted. The cover of the Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope gains its power less from the grainy photo of buzzards clawing a dead cowpoke than from the abstract red, yellow, and blue color scheme. French artist Guy Peellaert’s iconic greyhound/glam-rocker hybrid for David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs is paired with an even more grotesque knockoff featuring a scrawny Iggy Pop, complete with studded collar—you can almost hear the proto-punk colossus growling, “I wanna be your dog.” Steven Kasher, 521 W 23rd, 212-966-3978, Through August 19.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 10, 2011